Sticking Together or Drifting Apart? Quantifying the Strength of Migratory Connectivity

Post provided by Emily Cohen

Red Knot migratory connectivity is studied with tracking technologies and color band resighting. © Tim Romano

Red Knot migratory connectivity is studied with tracking technologies and colour band resighting. © Tim Romano

The seasonal long-distance migration of all kinds of animals – from whales to dragonflies to amphibians to birds – is as astonishing a feat as it is mysterious and this is an especially exciting time to study migratory animals. In the past 20 years, rapidly advancing technologies  – from tracking devices, to stable isotopes in tissues, to genomics and analytical techniques for the analysis of ring re-encounter databases – mean that it’s now possible to follow many animals throughout the year and solve many of the mysteries of migration.

What is Migratory Connectivity?

One of the many important things we’re now able to measure is migratory connectivity, the connections of migratory individuals and populations between seasons. There are really two components of migratory connectivity:

  1. Linking the geography of where individuals and populations occur between seasons.
  2. The extent, or strength, of co-occurrence of individuals and populations between seasons.

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The Power of Infinity: Using 3D Fractal Geometry to Study Irregular Organisms

Post provided by Jessica Reichert, André R. Backes, Patrick Schubert and Thomas Wilke

The Problem with the Shape

More than anything else, the phenotype of an organism determines how it interacts with the environment. It’s subject to natural selection, and may help to unravel the underlying evolutionary processes. So shape traits are key elements in many ecological and biological studies.

The growth form of corals is highly variable. ©Jessica Reichert

The growth form of corals is highly variable. ©Jessica Reichert

Commonly, basic parameters like distances, areas, angles, or derived ratios are used to describe and compare the shapes of organisms. These parameters usually work well in organisms with a regular body plan. The shape of irregular organisms – such as many plants, fungi, sponges or corals – is mainly determined by environmental factors and often lacks the distinct landmarks needed for traditional morphometric methods. The application of these methods is problematic and shapes are more often categorised than actually measured.

As scientists though, we favour independent statistical analyses, and there’s an urgent need for reliable shape characterisation based on numerical approaches. So, scientists often determine complexity parameters such as surface/volume ratios, rugosity, or the level of branching. However, these parameters all share the same drawback: they are delineated to a univariate number, taking information from one or few spatial scales and because of this essential information is lost. Continue reading

Phylogenies, Trait Evolution and Fancy Glasses

Post provided by Daniel S. Caetano

Phylogenetic trees represent the evolutionary relationships among different lineages. These trees give us two crucial pieces of information:

  1. the relationships between lineages (which we can tell from the pattern of the branches (i.e., topology))
  2. the point when lineages separated from a common ancestor (which we can tell from the length of the branches, when estimated from genetic sequences and fossils).
Phylogeny of insects inferred from genetic sequences showing the time of divergence between ants and bees.

Phylogeny of insects inferred from genetic sequences showing the time of divergence between ants and bees.

As systematic biologists, we are interested in the evolutionary history of life. We use phylogenetic trees to uncover the past, understand the present, and predict the future of biodiversity on the planet. Among the tools for this thrilling job are the comparative methods, a broad set of statistical tools built to help us understand and interpret the tree of life.

Here’s a Tree, Now Tell Me Something

The comparative methods we use to study the evolution of traits are mainly based on the idea that since species share a common evolutionary history, the traits observed on these lineages will share this same history. In the light of phylogenetics, we can always make a good bet about how a species will look if we know how closely related it is to another species or group. Comparative models aim to quantify the likelihood of our bet being right and use the same principle to estimate how fast evolutionary changes accumulate over time. Continue reading

Getting Serious About Transposable Elements

Post Provided by: Gabriel Rech and José Luis Villanueva-Cañas

So Simple yet so Complex

A long standing research topic in evolutionary biology is the genetic basis of adaptation. In other words, how does a novel trait appear (or spread) in response to an environmental change? Despite the rapid advances in sequencing over the last two decades, we have only been able to fully characterize a few adaptations.

As stated by Richard Dawkins in Climbing Mount Improbable, while natural selection is a very simple process, modeling natural selection and determining its causes, effects and consequences is an extremely difficult task. Also, most of our efforts so far have been focused on just one type of genetic variation: single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Other types of variations such as transposable element (TE) insertions have received much less attention. Paradoxically, some great examples of the role of TEs in adaptation have been right under our noses the whole time, in basic biology textbooks. Continue reading

Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics: Virtual Issue

Post provided by Michael Morrissey

©Dr. Jane Ogilvie, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory

Evolutionary quantitative genetics provides formal theoretical frameworks for quantitatively linking natural selection, genetic variation, and the rate and direction of adaptive evolution. This strong theoretical foundation has been key to guiding empirical work for a long time. For example, rather than generally understanding selection to be merely an association of traits and fitness in some general way, theory tells us that specific quantities, such as the change in mean phenotype within generations (the selection differential; Lush 1937), or the partial regressions of relative fitness on traits (direct selection gradients; Lande 1979, Lande and Arnold 1983) will relate to genetic variation and evolution in specific, informative ways.

These specific examples highlight the importance of the theoretical foundation of evolutionary quantitative genetics for informing the study of natural selection. However, this foundation also supports the study other critical (quantification of genetic variation and evolution) and complimentary (e.g., interpretation when environments, change, the role of plasticity and genetic variation in plasticity) aspects of understanding the nuts and bolts of evolutionary change. Continue reading

Conifers for Christmas: Evolution above the level of species

Post provided by  Aelys Humphreys

Conifers for Christmas

It’s somehow fitting that the centre piece of an ancient midwinter tradition in Europe – that of decorating and worshipping an evergreen tree – is an ancient seed plant, a conifer. In Europe, we tend to think of conifers as “Christmas trees” – evergreen trees with needles and dry cones, restricted to cold and dry environments – but conifers are much more diverse and widespread than that. There are broad-leaved, tropical conifers with fleshy cones and even a parasitic species that is thought to parasitise on members of its own family!

Conifer diversity. Classic Christmas tree style conifers in the snow; a broadleaved, tropical podocarp (© Ming-I Weng); the only parasitic gymnosperm, Parasitaxus usta (©W. Baker).

Conifer diversity. Classic Christmas tree style conifers in the snow; a broadleaved, tropical podocarp (© Ming-I Weng); the only parasitic gymnosperm, Parasitaxus usta (©W. Baker).

However, while today’s distribution of conifers is global – spanning tropical, temperate and boreal zones – it is fragmented. The conifer fossil record extends well into the Carboniferous and bears witness to a lineage that was once much more abundant, widespread and diverse. So we can tell that today’s diversity and distribution have been shaped by hundreds of millions of years of speciation, extinction and migration. Continue reading

Topography of Teeth: Tools to Track Animal and Ecosystem Responses to Environmental Changes

Below is a press release about the Methods paper ‘Inferring diet from dental morphology in terrestrial mammals‘ taken from the Smithsonian Institution.

By charting the slopes and crags on animals’ teeth as if they were mountain ranges, scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History have created a powerful new way to learn about the diets of extinct animals from the fossil record.

Understanding the diets of animals that lived long ago can tell researchers about the environments they lived in and help them piece together a picture of how the planet has changed over deep time. The new quantitative approach to analysing dentition, reported on 21 November in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, will also give researchers a clearer picture of how animals evolve in response to changes in their environment.

gorilla

A 3D reconstruction of the teeth of a western gorilla (Gorilla gorilla).

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Flawed Analysis Casts Doubt on Years of Evolution Research

Below is a press release about the Methods in Ecology and Evolution paper ‘‘Residual diversity estimates’ do not correct for sampling bias in palaeodiversity data‘ taken from the University of Bristol.

Years of research on the evolution of ancient life, including the dinosaurs, have been questioned after a fatal flaw in the way fossil data are analysed was exposed by scientists from the universities of Reading and Bristol.

Studies based on the apparently flawed method have suggested Earth’s biodiversity remained relatively stable – close to maximum carrying capacity – and hinted many signs of species becoming rapidly extinct are merely reflections on the poor quality of the fossil record at that time.

However, new research by scientists at the University of Reading suggests the history of the planet’s biodiversity may have been more dynamic than recently suggested, with bursts of new species appearing, along with crashes and more stable periods.

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RPANDA: A Time Machine for Evolutionary Biologists

Post provided by HÉLÈNE MORLON

Yesterday saw the start of this year’s annual Evolution meeting and to celebrate Hélène Morlon has written a blog post discussing the amazingly versatile RPANDA package that she is developing with her research group. A description of RPANDA was published in the journal earlier this year and, like all our Applications papers, is freely available to read in full.

If you are attending Evolution, as well as attending the fabulous talks mentioned by Hélène below, do stop by booth 125 to see our BES colleague Simon Hoggart. Simon is the Assistant Editor of Journal of Animal Ecology and would be happy to answer your questions about any of our journals or any of the other work we do here at the BES.

RPANDA: a time machine for evolutionary biologists

Imagine “Doc”, Marty’s friend in Back to the Future, trying to travel back millions of years in an attempt to understand the history of life. Instead of building a time machine from a DeLorean sports car powered by plutonium, he could dig fossils, or more likely, he would use molecular phylogenies.

Molecular phylogenies are family trees of species that can be built from data collected today: the genes (molecules) of present-day species (Fig 1). They are often thought of as trees, in reference to Darwin’s tree of life. The leaves represent the present: species that can be found on Earth today. The branches represent the past: ancestral species, which from time to time split, giving rise to two independent species. The structure of the tree tells us which species descend from which ancestors, and when their divergence happened.

birds_phylog

Fig 1: The phylogenetic tree of all birds (adapted from Jetz et al. 2012). Each bird order is represented by a single bird silloutter and a specific colour (the most abundant order of Passeriformes, for example is represented in dark orange). Each terminal leaf represents a present-day bird species, while internal branches represent the evolutionary relationships among these species.

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Measuring Survival Selection in Natural Populations: How important is recapture probability?

Post Provided by John Waller

The “Lande-Arnold” Approach

Damselflies marked in the field, which will hopefully be recaptured later. This small insect at our field site had only about 10% recapture probability.

Damselflies marked in the field, which will hopefully be recaptured later. This small insect at our field site had only about 10% recapture probability.

The quantification of survival selection in the field has a long history in evolutionary biology. A considerable milestone in this field was the highly influential publication by Russel Lande and Steve Arnold in the early 1980s.

The practical implementation of Lande and Arnold’s method involved simply fitting a linear model with standardized response (survival) and explanatory (trait) variables values with quadratic terms (multiplied by two). This straightforward method allowed evolutionary biologists to measure selection coefficients using commonly available statistical software and these estimates could be used directly within a quantitative genetic framework.  Continue reading